Does the Gripen JAS 39 have a chance against the F-35?

JAS 39 Compared to F-35: Last month, Saab Canada President Simon Carroll formally protested Ottawa’s move toward procuring the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II over its JAS 39 Gripen fighter. Carrol spoke during a committee hearing on air defense procurement in Canada’s House of Commons and argued that key details had yet to be finalized in each competitor’s official bid, according to the government’s original request for proposal (RFP).

Even though a final decision hasn’t been made, the Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) agency has moved forward to negotiate the final terms of delivery with Lockheed, including price per tail number, delivery schedule, and so-called “economic benefits,” including the domestic jobs that could be created under the program.

“There should be no negotiation on these critical elements,” Carroll told to Members of Parliament. “These elements of the bidder’s response were to be committed to and then evaluated as part of the competitive process.”

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is currently seeking to purchase 88 new fighters to phase out its aging fleet of CF-18s, the local designation for the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet. Ottawa had announced its preference for the F-35A in late March.

Canada is not the only NATO member nation to opt for the fifth-generation F-35 over the fourth-generation plus plus fighter this year. The Czech Republic had also selected the Lightning II as a replacement for its Gripens that were leased from Saab. The lease contract will expire in 2027, and Sweden’s ambassador even went so far to win favor for the JAS 39 that it offered Prague the jets essentially free of charge.

However, free wasn’t good enough – and the Czech Republic opted to go with the F-35.

“Our decision to select this option is based on the analysis by the Czech Armed Forces, which clearly articulates that only the most advanced 5th-generation fighters will be able to meet mission requirements in future battlefields,” Czech Defense Minister Jana Černochová said in a statement in July.

Comparing the Two Aircraft: JAS 39 vs. F-35

The Swedish fighter is considered one of the best non-stealth combat aircraft in the world. Yet, Saab has largely failed in securing additional sales for either its earlier Gripen C/D or its latest Gripen E/F range, while international sales campaigns had scored no successes since Brazil joined the Gripen E/F program in 2014.

It is routinely compared to the F-35 – but how do the aircraft actually stack up?

First, the Swedish aircraft is a more “mature” program, having taken flight nearly two decades before the F-35. A lot of development occurred during this time, of course. Yet, since the JAS Gripen (Griffen) entered service in 1997, only 158 aircraft have been produced.

The JAS 39 became the first true Swedish multirole combat aircraft – capable of conducting interception, ground attack, and reconnaissance. It is presently offered in two modern variants: C- and E-series, however, even those are in need of some updates, and this past summer, it was announced that the Gripen C-series would enter an “upgrade process” that could see those models remain in service until at least 2035.

The Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV) awarded a SEK 500 million ($52 million) contract with Saab to provide maintenance services for the fighter aircraft. Saab will provide capability improvements to the JAS 39 to maintain its operational relevance for the next decade, as well as cost-effective solutions to help sustain the aircraft for an even longer period.

By contrast, more than a dozen nations around the globe have adopted the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. A big factor is that it provides greater compatibility among America’s allies and partners, including a number of NATO members. Perhaps now that Sweden has formally joined the alliance the views could change.

Then there is also the fact that the F-35 is an actual fifth-generation multirole aircraft with stealth capabilities, while the Swedish Gripen is still just an advanced fourth-generation fighter. The F-35 is a significantly larger aircraft, yet is slightly slower than the Gripen. Though the JAS 39 has a longer range than the Lightning II, each can carry a similar weapons load – although the F-35 has the ability to operate in both stealth and “beast mode.”

While some at Saab, and even within the Swedish government, may cry foul that more nations are lining up for the F-35, it is simply about the capabilities.

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